The issue, simply stated, is that market rate housing exceeds the budgets of most New Yorkers.
-- Marc Norman, Designing Affordability
The recent exhibit by Marc Norman (LF '14 ) at the Center for Architecture, New York, explored innovation in affordable housing. It could not be more timely. Last month, the Pew Charitable Foundation reported that for the first time in its forty-year history of data collection, America's middle class is no longer the country's economic majority. If this trend persists, and there is scant evidence to suggest otherwise, many more of us will be looking to affordable housing options.
Neck and neck with London for the world's Most-Favored City status, New York is awash in global capital. Ultra-high-end development and escalating property values make the affordability issue acute. While representing projects drawn from cities across the country as well as internationally, Norman derives his cost analysis baseline from New York City's pressure cooker scenario. The results are sobering.
Since 2000, there's been an 11 percent increase in New Yorkers deemed "rent burdened," meaning 30 percent of their household income is spent on housing, a threshold stipulated by HUD; 55 percent of NYC households are rent burdened. If that percentage strikes you as tough but not overly grim, given the uneven post-2008 so-called recovery and the dizzying costs of first-tier global cities, wait for the other shoe to drop: 30 percent of these burdened households qualify as "severely rent burdened," spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing. For these households, any gain made by possible relocation to more affordable but car-dependent suburbs would be squandered in higher travel costs, estimated at 40 percent of a low-wage earner's income.
Given that most of the deluxe developments needling the Manhattan skyline are vertical vaults–paid in cash of dubious origin and largely vacant; they are about as "residential" as industrially farmed food is "all natural"–one wonders whether a creative, civic-minded financier might not broker a more productive investment strategy for these wayward funds. Such is the urgency, so difficult the task; Norman’s creatively curated, nearly sleight-of-hand exhibition prompts grave reflection masked in flights of fancy.
By equal measure Houdini and Sorcerer's Apprentice, the sole Boston project in the exhibit, CityHOME, 2014 brainchild of MIT Media Lab's Changing Places research group, is a 200-square-foot unit boasting the functionality of a space four times the size. This fierce economy of scale is made possible by nesting basic household furnishings in a smooth-surfaced multi-purpose utility core centered in the room and activated by sensing technologies. With the wave of a hand, a drawer at the base of the cube extrudes to reveal a bed; another gesture retracts it (Expelliarmus!). One wave releases a dining table; another, retracts; wave again and voilà, a desk. The utility core as a unit slides manually to extend the bathroom when showering and back to maximize study or dining space.
A growing trend in urban lifestyles is the rise of single-person households; 46 percent of New Yorkers live alone. NYC Department of City Planning responded in 2012 with the competition "adAPT," an experiment in micro-unit housing, won by nARCHITECTS. Their proposal, Carmel Place, formerly My Micro NY, is a nine-story, 55-unit development on East 27th Street. Studios range from 260 to 360 square feet; 14 are affordable. According to The New York Times, 60,000 applications were submitted for the affordable units, almost 4,300 applicants per unit. Rent is $950 a month, less than half market rate. The building opens February 1, 2016.
Interior intervention is an innovative strategy for adapting existing or new structures, represented in two projects in the exhibit, each responding to polar ends of the market spectrum. On the high end, in San Francisco, Urban Works Agency is a California College of the Arts collective whose advisory board includes GSD planning faculty Rahul Mehrotra and Neil Brenner. In a 2014 course Interior Urbanism, Urban Works Agency studied the informal housing that proliferates in San Francisco as a means by which residents manage growth against escalating property costs. The city estimates there are more than 50,000 inlaw units illegally adapted from garages, attics, and spare rooms in violation of fire safety codes. Urban Works Agency devised a regulatory framework by which the density of San Francisco's generously proportioned Victorian housing stock could be increased in compliance with code.
At the low end of the market, the Mod Pod is a prefabricated residential utility unit that can be inserted into new or existing structures and developed in collaboration with Rice University Building Workshop and Project Row Houses, Houston, Rick Lowe's (LF '02) pioneering art-as-social practice residential community. Founded in the 1990s and since expanded to offer a range of community programs including arts education, studio-based art residencies, family supports, and organic gardening, Project Row Houses commissioned the Mod Pod as a multi-functional insert to cost-efficiently convert non-residential structures to residential use. Mod Pod continues the work of a 2003 project, Extra Small (XS) House, a 500-square-foot dwelling built for $25,000, with design inspired by the vernacular shot-gun house typology of the first homes restored by Project Row Houses.
Other inventive approaches represented in Designing Affordability include creative public-private partnerships that leverage land values to produce inclusionary and workforce housing without tapping city housing subsidies, like 280 Cadman West, Brooklyn, NY. There are projects programmed for aging LGBT communities–Ribbon House in West Hollywood, CA–projects in poured concrete in Port au Prince, Haiti, as well as stacked modular construction like Star Apartments in LA. NYC-based design team 9x18, named for the standard dimensions of the surface parking space, works at the frontier of infill real estate for adaptive, affordable residential reuse. Micro meets pico in Seoul, Korea, with Songpa Housing units as small as 128 square feet.
The sharing economy is a silent partner in the design and development of this maximum efficiency, minimum space affordability strategy with storage value-engineered out of the housing equation. Consider the unintended consequences on the consumer economy with consumption cut to the measure of a micro-unit closet.
How small do we go?
No matter. Upon her request for more closet space at Kentuck Knob, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Usonian house in Dunbar, PA, Mrs. Hagan was sternly rebuked. "Throw it away, madam," Wright instructed, "Storage is unhealthy."
Pace, Mr. Wright. It turns out we can't afford it anyway.